Photo by Howie Magner
It was quite the array of dignitaries who showed up for Sue Black's Thursday-morning press conference. Held in a courtyard just outside of the U.S. Cellular Arena, it was her way of reintroducing the Milwaukee Wave, the indoor soccer team that she now owns. And truth be told, with a mix of fans and curious onlookers and power-lunchers and Wave personnel, it felt more like a cocktail party than a media event.
Coach Keith Tozer was there, of course, because wherever the Wave is, Tozer shall follow. It's been that way for more than two of the indoor soccer club's three decades; it should stay that way as long as he wants. And yes, all the players were there, too, showing off the team's slick new logos and uniforms. Pretty standard stuff, as far as sports pressers go.
But then, the Wisconsin Center District's Frank Gimbel stepped up to the mic for a few words. And then, former Gov. Tommy Thompson took the podium and said quite a bit more than a few words. Among them, some comments about "that sort of bashful owner, Sue Black, whom I've known for 20 years."
Yes, Sue Black, former parks chief for Milwaukee and Wisconsin alike, has plenty of friends in plenty of high places. And the never-bashful, always-aggressive Black isn’t afraid to ask them for help with her latest endeavor. Thompson is now the board co-chair for the Wave of Hope, the team's charitable outreach arm, and he'll work with a slew of prominent Milwaukee business leaders who also sit on the board. And yes, they were all at the party, too.
Given the turnout, it's easy to forget how close the party came to being canceled, and long before Black sent out the invitations. The Wave had all but crashed when previous owner Jim Lindenberg swooped in to buy it, an 11th-hour move that kept the storied club from extinction.
"Give Jim Lindenberg a lot of credit,” Tozer says. “This franchise was dark four years ago, and he saved it. He gave Sue the opportunity to take over."
Nobody will give you exact numbers, but it's almost certain that Lindenberg lost money for his troubles. Part of the reason the Wave needed saving was its unprofitable ways, and while Lindenberg lessened the bleeding, word is that he didn't completely stop it.
Now, Black will give it a shot. "Sue is highly energetic, highly passionate, extremely connected, a hard worker and extremely smart," Tozer says. "You put those together, it's a formula for success."
Tozer has had a front-row seat to see Black work her magic. Not long after Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele sent her packing from the parks department, Black landed with the Wave. When Lindenberg wanted out, Black bought in. Never before has the team had such a high-profile owner.
"It's not only what you know, it's who you know," Tozer says, "and I think Sue, through her success with the parks system and in government, has met a lot of important people in town. And you can know somebody, but they have to like you, and they have to respect you. I think that's what Sue has. I think she knows a lot of people, they all like her, they all respect her, and they all want to do something for her.
"Hopefully," Tozer continues, "it's gonna be the thing that maybe pushes this franchise to a whole other level."
In an ideal world, what would that level be?
Well, winning certainly hasn’t been a problem, given the club’s six championship trophies, two of which were won in the last three seasons. But there’s plenty of room to improve when it comes to getting fans in the stands. Both Tozer and Black say they’d like to see attendance reach 8,000 per game, which is quite the jump from last year’s average of about 5,000.
Can Black and friends get the team there? Well, the club certainly has entree into places that had been previously hard to reach. And in Wisconsin, it never hurts when you can say something like this.
"Tommy and I have been pretty close for a long time," Black says. "I respect him so much, and he's made every board meeting. He's not just here with his name on a piece of paper. He's been to every meeting.”
She is serious about the Wave’s charitable efforts, slipping it into conversation at every chance she gets. And she is grateful for all the time that people are putting in to make it, and everything else, work.
“I don’t take anything like that for granted,” Black says. “Everybody's busy. Everybody's got something. So you really need to have people share in the passion and the vision of what you're trying to accomplish.”
The Wave is clearly Black’s new passion, and she wants to share it. She shook as many hands as she could Thursday morning, chatting with fans as if they were old friends and giving out generous doses of goodbye hugs. Then, as the event wound down and players started leaving, Black made a point to hug each and every one of them, too.
Yes, she’s a hugger. And maybe, she’ll convince Milwaukee to embrace the Wave anew.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I tweet as howiemag. Hear me chat with fellow MilMag staff on “No Revisions,” our new weekly radio show that airs noon Tuesdays on WMSE. And listen to me talk sports with Mitch Teich once a month on WUWM's "Lake Effect."